Do you have questions about how to choose sustainability?

At this Q&A, we asked Emma Garnett, one of the experts taking part in ‘Reducing an organisation’s footprint’; Siobhan Anderson and Hugo Richardson from the Tyre Collective, whose work is featured in ‘Driving for change in plastic pollution’; and Heather Koldewey who spoke about ‘Ocean optimism in a sea of plastic‘, your questions about what we can all do to live more sustainably.

This Q&A session aired live at 8pm on Tuesday 30 March and was chaired by Seth Daood.

Thank you to everyone who submitted questions for this Q&A. The panel has kindly gone through some of the ones that there wasn’t time to answer on the night and you can find their answers below:

  • Maggie: The pandemic underlines how the current industrial food system is failing people highlighting systemic inequities and harming the planet through unsustainable supply chains. If a group of students and/or teachers wants to implement transformative change at their school from source to plate (and composting bin) how can we make it truly matter when teachers and students are pressured to work towards checking off items for testing and achieving high marks? Make it part of the curriculum? Change the curriculum

Emma Garnett: I think studying the environmental impacts of food at school and learning to make some sustainable, nutritous and cheap meals (e.g. red lentil dal or pease pudding, chickpea curries) could be really valuable.

  • Garth: Why do people buy bottled water, when tap water is fine?

Heather Koldewey: We’ve found from our work with #OneLess that there are a variety of reasons, e.g. people don’t like the taste or temperature of tap water; people think bottled water is healthier (note tap water in the UK is better regulated than bottled water), or if you don’t have or forget your refillable water bottle then you may need to buy bottled water when you are on the move. Water filters, putting bottles in fridge, and using a refillable water bottle plus accessing refill points (use the Find a Fountain or Refill apps) are all good ways to solve this.

  • Dawn T: I have recently learned about ECOBRICKS which uses plastic bottles filled with plastic bags to make bricks for building small structures such as raised beds in allotments. What do you think of this idea?

Heather Koldewey: I’ve seen these used in the Philippines too. I think it’s a good idea to deal with some problem waste items, but doesn’t address the need to reduce/eliminate plastic waste. So it’s a short term fix but not a long term solution.

  • Helen W: I do what I can but, too often the sustainable item is beyond my budget. I am unwaged and in receipt of disability benefits.

Heather Koldewey: There are ways of finding cost efficiencies on a tight budget though some things may be more challenging than others. If there are particular items that are really tricky then that would be good to learn about to see where there may be cost efficient alternatives or different ways of doing things that are possible on a very tight budget. Check out https://www.sas.org.uk/plastic-free-communities/ which has a lot of good tools and is a great community to be part of and will help you connect locally.

  • Case: you mentioned plastics ending up in the oceans — does this happen even when we put them in our recycling bins?

Heather Koldewey: It shouldn’t as recycling should be recycled. Plastic gets into the ocean from various routes such as rivers, ships, land (wind, litter) and sewage outfalls.

  • Em: You mentioned sustainable fishing, but can it ever be sustainable?

Emma Garnett: Good question! We are overfishing far too much, so we need to eat far fewer fish. Seafood is an important protein source for many people in low-income countries. If we could restore our oceans and fish stocks, this could reduce pressures on the land.

Heather Koldewey: Yes, fishing can be sustainable but it depends on the species, the fishing gear used and the location and time spent fishing. For example, trawling can be highly destructive with lots of non-target species caught, while pole and line fishing can be very targeted. Management of the fishery is also important, which controls the number of fish caught and can ensure that breeding adults are protected and breeding seasons avoided, for example. As a consumer, look at labels (which are a start but not always perfect) and look for transparency and traceability. In a restaurant/cafe/fish counter, that can be asking where the fish is from and what type of fishery. Good places will know the details and be able to answer. If enough people ask, then suppliers will have to respond. A lot more fishers (UK and elsewhere) are selling direct to customers as a result of losing markets from Covid (and Brexit), so look on social media (mostly Facebook and Twitter) and you can interact directly with the person who catches the fish and reassure yourselves about sustainability.

  • Kerry W: What is the most sustainable way to heat homes and which energy providers are truly making a difference?

Emma Garnett: There are some great renewable energy providers out there: Bulb, Ecotricity, Octopus are three which spring to mind.

  • Ana R: Can we actually trust sustainable and organic labels?

Emma Garnett: Labels generally have to meet certain requirements (not my area of expertise!) I think it’s important to think about if the label talks about the most important issues for sustainability. E.g. organic beef has higher land use, GHG emissions than non-organic almost-every-other-type of food.

  • Is there a solution to micro plastics? How many years will it take to remove them? Is it feasible? Where should we focus our efforts? Clean up or producers? What about infinity chemicals that never break down like PFOA? Apparently there are 600 forever chemicals.

Heather Koldewey: There has already been legislation in many countries to remove microbeads from facial scrubs, toothpaste etc. which has helped remove microplastics. A recent study shows how filters and other devices can help reduce release of microfibres from clothing https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969720339346. A lot of microplastic comes from larger plastic items breaking down over time (due to sun, wind, rain, wave action) and the best solution here is to stop plastic entering the environment in the first place.

  • Rebecca O: Moving beyond food and drink, how else can we make a difference? For example, I know that clothing and fashion are huge contributors to carbon emissions and landfill, but few people think about this.

Emma Garnett: Very true! If you can afford it, buying clothes that last and second hand clothes. H&M will take your old (non-charity shop suitable) clothes to be recycled.

Heather Koldewey: Yes, clothing waste is a major issue. Look for sustainable brands, reuse and buy second hand where you can. https://theuniformproject.com/ is a cool example of how one outfit worked for one year!

  • Eleni: How can we truly cut down on our purchase of products that contain palm oil? I try my absolute best to evaluate everything I buy, but sometimes there is no other option. And with this in mind, how can we convince people to act in the same way – particularly those who chose ease over sustainability?

Emma Garnett: Sustainable palm oil is probably the best option. Palm oil leading to deforestation is not good, but palm oil is incredibly high yielding. So if we moved away from palm oil we would need more land to grow our vegetable oils. Have a look at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil.

  • John T: As we become more technologically advanced, items that now cannot be economically recycled will be in future. How do we manage this and ensure items don’t go into landfill that can be recycled in future? Also what about items in landfill now that can be recycled now?

Emma Garnett: Good question, not my area of expertise but broadly I think we need to re-wire the economy so that manufacturers are incentivised to produce long-lasting products which can be repaired. The Guardian now includes sustainability and repairability in their review of electronic products. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/dec/29/how-we-are-changing-the-way-we-rate-sustainability-of-consumer-electronics

  • Jane H: Would it be true to say that the single most important sustainability issue is sustainable energy use, because climate chaos risks overwhelming our societies?

Emma Garnett: Moving to renewable energy in your home definitely key! Moving from gas to electric boilers too.

  • Pete: Is the intention for the satellite tracked bottles to be used to identify how and where the majority of plastics travel and ultimately end up so that they may be more efficiently collected?

Heather Koldewey: We are using it to track the routes of plastic, hotspots and connectivity between rivers and the ocean to see the fate of plastic – an experiment though! The methods and papers, including for the bottle tags (open access) can be found here https://jambeck.engr.uga.edu/sea-to-source

  • Janet W: It’s going to be almost impossible to eliminate plastics entirely surely; almost all areas of modern life depend on plastics (including the infrastructure we are using for this webinar). What alternative materials are there that could replace some plastics? And how can we judge between the pros and cons of different materials? Rachel: Should we be looking to move away from plastic completely or is there still a space for recyclable plastic made from recyclable materials without negatively affecting the environment?

Heather Koldewey: Plastic is an incredible material – light, flexible, durable etc. The challenge is when it becomes mismanaged waste and enters the environment. 40% of all plastic produced each year is single use plastic and that makes up most waste. So we need to use plastic wisely and well and drastically reduce single use plastic. Globally we only recycle about 9% of plastic, so that figure needs to dramatically increase too to reduce demands for virgin plastic which is made from fossil fuels.

  • Maggie: Cambridge’s sustainable food policy rollout was economically successful. If the cost of quality plant-based alternatives is more expensive than cheap ground beef and other fast food options at a school what steps can teachers and students take to make a case for transforming their school menus? If the moral imperative is second to economics?

Emma Garnett: Tasty vegan meat alternatives can be more expensive than cheap meat, which is an issue! However, lentils, beans, chickpeas are very nutritous and cheap, and with a little expertise, make delicious meals! I recommend the fantastic Jack Monroe for vegan recipes on a budget: https://cookingonabootstrap.com/category/beans-lentils/

  • Jocelyn M: Have the panel seen https://www.cornwallclimate.org/films? In the first film ‘Under the Surface’, Claire Wallerstein suggests the huge rise in public awareness about the impacts of plastic pollution may have diverted attention from an even more urgent environmental problem affecting the sea, namely climate change. Do the panel agree with this, and what kind of local projects do you think could restore the marine environment and help tackle climate change?

Heather Koldewey: Heather: Yes and Claire makes some really important points (I live in Cornwall!). I see plastic pollution as a route for people to think about their actions and the environmental consequences of those. With plastic, that’s visible and non-controversial – I’ve yet to meet a plastic pollution denier! However, climate change is a massive issue for the ocean that’s often overlooked or ignored. It’s important that interest in plastic pollution and ocean issues is a first step in a sustainability journey – for individuals, businesses and governments. Many organisations we have worked with for #OneLess started thinking about how to get rid of plastic bottles, then went on to make much bigger climate actions. The ocean needs all the help it can get from all of us!

  • Jan L: On a global scale, how big an issue is water use? I sometimes see suggestions for greener products but then other people comment that these things use more resources to make. I know this might be. generic question but what is the priority?

Emma Garnett: water use is also really important! With the exception of nuts, generally plant-based foods have lower water-footprints than meat and dairy. https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food#water-use

  • Grace: What can we do about the food we eat? apart from meat, are there any other foods that we should really try to cut down on eg. soya?

Emma Garnett: Cutting down on meat, fish and dairy is a key step. Chocolate also has quite a high carbon footprint. Soya and tofu is fine! Eating seasonal produce and reducing food waste are also key. https://ourworldindata.org/soyhttps://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food#you-want-to-reduce-the-carbon-footprint-of-your-food-focus-on-what-you-eat-not-whether-your-food-is-local

  • Maggie: Would you include burning biomass from trees as a renewable energy source?

Emma Garnett: Technically biomass is a renewable energy source but personally I think this is not good strategy for meeting most (or even some) of our energy needs. In the UK we have some “green” energy from burning trees from ancient forests in the USA. There’s not enough land. https://theecologist.org/2018/apr/16/hardwood-forests-cut-down-feed-drax-power-plant-channel-4-dispatches-claims

  • David VDo any of you believe that it’s possible to protest/encourage governments of poor countries to be more environmental friendly? And is it possible and / or necessary?

Emma Garnett: Emma: I think citizens of all countries should pressure their governments to act on climate change and protect nature. It’s important to remember that rich countries bear most responsbility for climate change and poorer countries will suffer the worst consequences. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51906530

  • Danny C: Do you have any really inspiring leaders or resources that you have found powerful when trying to convince others?

Heather Koldewey: It depends on who you are trying to influence and who they might be influenced by. There are businesses taking action so business leaders may be good in some cases (e.g. Richard Walker who heads up Iceland and has just written a book called The Green Grocer). In other cases it may be a regular family https://www.dotrythisathome.com/

  • Joy: Heather, what can be done to remove the tons of plastic that are already in the ocean?

Heather Koldewey: That’s the hardest part which is why we need to focus on keeping it out of the ocean! Our project www.coast4C.com incentivises communities to collect waste nets and stop ghost fishing. Other local initiatives include things like Fishing for Litter. Beach and street cleans are also helpful but not solving the problem. Unfortunately large scale gadgets remain experimental and haven’t yet solved it either. That’s why the focus is on stopping it going in – a bit like turning off the tap into a bath that’s overflowing rather than trying to bail out the bath!

  • Paul: I suppose that waxed paper/cardboard, like what is used with milk cartons, would be a good substitute to plastic that could be used a lot more?

Heather Koldewey: Most of that card has a layer of plastic which makes it tricky to recycle which is why items like Tetrapak require specialist recycling facilities.

  • Ava G: How can we expect lower-income households to make sustainable choices when, the majority of the time, the sustainable option is much more expensive?

Heather Koldewey: I am not sure that’s always the case. Tap water is cheaper than bottled water. Plant-based diets cheaper than meat. Where there are price challenges we need to see where products can become more mainstream and competitive, or look at different ways to do things. Economics should not be a barrier.

  • Faye V: For many, the idea of “giving up” on their normal items / daily choices for the sake of sustainability can be a real barrier, and sometimes not even possible (e.g. those with medical conditions could not go plastic free). The idea of sustainability is often communicated in extremes: “plastic free”, “off-grid”, “eco-friendly”. How do we do a better job at communicating that sustainability is a scale of choices, and not just a binary?

Emma Garnett: Really important point. On the one hand “if we all do a little, we’ll all achieve a little”, on the other hand you don’t need to be completely vegan or completely car free to really reduce your emissions. It’s “all or something” definitely not “all or nothing”.

  • H Ben: What are the major barriers you think that’s preventing an organisation from being more sustainable?

Emma Garnett: Important question, depends on the organisation. Obligation to make profits for shareholders, unwillingness to change, the fact that our society is not set up so the sustainable choice is automatically the cheapest, easiest and most convenient.

  • Ilona W: Is consuming less meat and animal products the best solution to living sustainably?

Emma Garnett: Certainly one of the best!

  • Olivia C: What more can I do outside of the normal, essential eco-friendly swaps and lifestyle changes, to have a positive impact on the health of the planet?

Emma Garnett: Join climate and nature protests and lobby for policies and politics which prioritise people and planet.

  • Katerina C: What is the most difficult step to choose sustainability? And how to start?

Emma Garnett: start with something simple that you think you’ll enjoy? Do you enjoy cooking? Try some new vegan recipes? Are you good with words? Email your MP about an environmental issue that you care about.

  • Jan L: We try and do our bit by buying green and recycling – but as individuals, is that our most effective action? There is so much to do in so little time, can we do more by shifting focus? Should we be funding research instead? I’m always banging on about buying plastic, but what else should we be talking about?

Emma Garnett: Funding research is also key! We have brillaint engineering graduates many of whom are working on making slightly better hairdryers and hair straighteners, instead of e.g. better solar panels. I think the most effective action is to join campaigns and protests for big system changes for climate and nature.

  • Isabelle T: What’s your advice for sustainable travel? I’m a young person and would love to explore the world when it becomes possible again. I’m not sure how to square that with avoiding planes etc!

Emma Garnett: I empathise! https://www.seat61.com/ has fantastic information for getting around Europe without flying.

  • Lewis H: How do we get around the fact that at the moment, choosing to be sustainable and make more ethical choices, can sometimes be far more economically costly than buying goods without thought?

Emma Garnett: It’s a huge problem! I think recognising that it’s a problem and advocating for it to be different is a first step.

  • Sara A: How can we make a difference on a budget?

Emma Garnett: Really important question! Lots (but not all) of important sustainability actions are also budget friendly: buying less stuff, buying more beans and less meat. Lobbying your MP for environmental action and joining climate and nature strikes is another option.

  • Dafila S: Here in UK we can buy organic fruit and veg. How can we find out whether foreign fruit and veg is sustainably grown?

Emma Garnett: Organic isn’t always better for the environment, it’s a mixed picture. https://ourworldindata.org/is-organic-agriculture-better-for-the-environmenthttps://theconversation.com/healthy-soil-is-the-real-key-to-feeding-the-world-75364

  • Jon T: I’m planning a new business (plant-based healthy foods), what areas should be a focus to ensure we are starting on the right path to a sustainable future?

Emma Garnett: Fantastic! Best of luck! Perhaps focussing on renewable energy and also reusable products? More broadly, Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics has a fantastic vision for a sustainale and regenerative circular economy.

  • Luke T: What’s the most effective change an individual can make to reduce plastic consumption?

Emma Garnett: Cutting down on single use plastic.

  • Florence W: If we could do just one thing to make a difference, what should we do?

Emma Garnett: Lobby your MP to support the Climate and Ecolocial Emergency Bill, or join another campaign or protest for climate and nature, would be my suggestion.

  • Gary L: What can anyone/everyone do to help that is simple and or what can councils insist people do ??

Emma Garnett: My top recommendations would be 1) mostly plant-based diet, 2) cutting down/stopping flying and driving 3) switch to a renewable energy company and make sure your home is well insulated and 4) join campaigns and strikes for climate and nature and push for system change.

  • Jeremy K: If a tyre is made from rubber and rubber comes from a plantation and car use is going up what hope do we have of keeping a balance with nature?

Siobhan Anderson: This is absolutly a concern. But the idustry has alrady shifted from using pure naturla rubber. Most tyres are made of synthetic polymers with a small fraction of natural rubber. This is also why tyres are counted as microplastics. Though continuing to make tyres out of plastics is a huge polution problem, the global demand for tyres is now too large to shift back to natural materials at the same scale without damaging the environment. In addition the syntheitc material has higher saftey standards. Some reseach is being done into biodegradabel and safly scalable materials but it is far from being applied. For now we hope to address the everyday polution that is occuring. 

  • Tammy A: What was the first ‘small’ step you made to change to a more sustainable life?

Emma Garnett: When I was a teenager (14-21) I stopped flying completely for 7 years. It started off as a small step and kept growing! I have flown occassionally since then but I try and limit it.

  • J S: How to not let guilt overwhelm everyday life?

Emma Garnett: I think, remember that it is incredibly unfair that more sustainable decisions are often less convenient and more expensive. For example, public transport in the UK is very expensive and there’s not enough of it. This isn’t something we can change with our individual daily behaviour. So instead of guilt, feel righteous anger! And demand a better future.

  • Ole T: I live in Denmark and I am curious about how you protect nature in the UK.

Emma Garnett: We need to do much better, we are one of the most nature depleted countries in Europe! There are some exciting rewilding schemes restoring nature, which can hopefully become more widespread.

  • Sharon McA: What is one single sustainable thing to do to make a difference or a few simple changes to make in our daily lives. Lucy B: What changes can I make today which will make a difference? Siobhan H: What are the top three things I can do to most help the planet?

Emma Garnett: My top recommendations would be 1) mostly plant-based diet, 2) cutting down/stopping flying and driving 3) switch to a renewable energy company and make sure your home is well insulated and 4) join campaigns and strikes for climate and nature and push for system change.

  • Nichiless D: Hi everyone, I’ve gone fully plant based (15 months & counting) and will very soon be changing jobs to reduce the commute and allow me to ditch the car for a bicycle. What are the top three changes I can make to minimise the damage I do to nature?

Emma Garnett: Great work! That’s two big things already. I would say cutting down/stopping flying and joining climate and nature protests and lobbying.

Related Pages

Welcome to Choosing sustainability

Seth Daood is an undergraduate studying Zoology at Cambridge. As well as producing his own videos aimed at widening access to the University, he has long-running interests in sustainability and nature conservation. He will share his views on why we should all choose sustainability. Screening from Tuesday 30 March.

Reducing an organisation’s footprint

Three University pioneers set out how they're transforming the footprint of an 800 year-old institution. Focusing on food, Amy, Nick and Emma will explain how science, cookery and smart business-sense came together to make a real difference. Screening from Tuesday 30 March.

Driving for change in plastic pollution

Wear on vehicle tyres is the second biggest source of microplastics washing into the world's oceans. Smart innovation by a team of four young entrepreneurs from around the world now offers hope for stopping these emissions at source. Screening from Tuesday 30 March.

Ocean optimism in a sea of plastic

Discarded plastics pose a major threat to marine biodiversity but Heather Koldewey (Head of Marine and Freshwater Conservation at the Zoological Society of London) explains how she's protecting the ocean from plastic pollution. Screening from Tuesday 30 March.

Seth Daood

Seth Daood is a third-year Zoology undergraduate at Cambridge, where he focuses on conservation, evolution and ecology, particularly primates (ask any of his supervisors about how he never fails to mention a primate in his essays!). He is also the co-president of the Cambridge Wildlife Conservation Society, a society which aims to connect individuals with wildlife and the outdoors both locally and globally. As an individual, Seth has had long-running interests in diversity, social justice, climate activism and theatre – matters that more often than not go hand in hand with one another. He has worked to boost representation both in science and Cambridge as a whole, focusing on supporting students from traditionally under-represented backgrounds. He finds that this work has given him hope for the future – seeing how the field of conservation, but also science more generally, is diversifying and reaching a broader range of individuals from a range of backgrounds is inspiring. It is not only the western world threatened by climate change. Seth believes that together, the broad range of individuals now being represented in the field, and those to come, have the best chance of fighting the global impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Emma Garnett

Emma joined the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in September 2020 as a Research Associate to work on sustainability in supermarket supply chains. For her PhD she tested which interventions were most effective to reduce meat consumption and increase vegetarian sales in university cafeterias. She has previously worked with several different academic institutions, NGOs and businesses including the University of Kiel (Germany), Microsoft Research (UK) and Zoological Society London (UK). More generally, Emma is interested in understanding how to equitably overcome economic, political and social barriers to conserving biodiversity and reaching absolute zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Siobhan Anderson

Siobhan is a Kinesiologist and Design Engineer. She received her MA/MSc in Innovation Design Engineering from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London; and graduated with honours in Kinesiology with minors in Biology and Fine Art from California State University, Sacramento. Her passion for design, the natural sciences, and the environment have lead her work to focus on the intersection of these disciplines and solutions for a sustainable future. Her work has been the recipient of the UK National Winner & International runner up for the James Dyson Award and the Mayor of London’s Entrepreneur Environment Award. She is a Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) at The Tyre Collective, heading research and testing development.

Hugo Richardson

Hugo Richardson graduated in Mechanical Engineering with honours from the University of Bristol in 2018 before joining the Innovation Design Engineering double masters at Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. He is a recipient of a Design Studentship from the prestigious Royal Commission for the Exhibition 1851. His background in engineering and passion for design are constantly colliding, leading him to take an interdisciplinary approach to the complex and nuanced challenges we face. While working at Dyson he gained experience in design for manufacture, testing and analysis – skills which he now brings to his role as CTO at The Tyre Collective.

Heather Koldewey

Heather Koldewey started working for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in 1995, as a postdoctoral research scientist, curator of London Zoo Aquarium, Head of Marine and Freshwater Conservation and now as Senior Technical Advisor. Heather is Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter. She was appointed a National Geographic Fellow in 2019 with a focus on solving ocean plastic pollution and was science co-lead for their 2019 Sea to Source: Ganges expedition. Heather co-founded Project Seahorse in 1996, the world’s leading authority on seahorses and early pioneer of community-based marine conservation; set up Net-Works, a multi-award winning project that has developed a novel community-based supply chain for discarded fishing nets that are recycled into carpet (recently spun out as social enterprise COAST-4C); and #OneLess, a systems change approach to building a more ocean-friendly society through working to make London the first capital city to stop using single-use plastic water bottles. She has been involved in science and conservation in the Chagos Archipelago since 2008, now running the Bertarelli Foundation’s Marine Science Programme, an interdisciplinary research and conservation programme for marine science and conservation in the Indian Ocean, involving over 80 researchers from 24 institutions and seven countries. Her reason for optimism is: ‘Wherever I have been in the world, there are amazing people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds who are doing incredible things to protect and restore the ocean and the incredible wildlife that lives there’.